Amazon CEO, Mayo Clinic Back Bay Area Anti-Aging Firm Unity Biotech's $116 Million Funding Round
October 28, 2016
By Alex Keown, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff
SAN FRANCISCO – Antiaging startup Unity Biotechnology got an infusion of $116 million in financing, backed in part by noted names, including Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, through his Bezos Expedition Fund, as well as ARCH Venture Partners and Mayo Clinic Ventures.
The funding, which is being billed as ranking among the largest private financings in biotech history, will be used to help the young company develop therapies to extend the lifespan of people through treatments that aimed at cleansing the body of “toxic” senescent cells. Those cells have essentially become dormant, but continue to have an impact on the body’s environment. According to a statement by Unity, senescent cells can accumulate and secrete “growth factors, proteases, and inflammatory factors” that are disruptive. This may be a contributor to the chronic inflammation observed in many age-related diseases, the company said.
Unity launched in February with the goal of developing medications to treat and eliminate age-related diseases and help extend the years for seniors to have thriving and active lives. Early animal models have shown that the use of cellular senescence could help reverse, or at least slow down, the effects of several ailments associated with aging, including osteoarthritis, glaucoma, heart disease and kidney failure.
The new funding will go toward driving Unity’s pre-clinical work into the clinic. The company said it wants to use the money to expand ongoing research programs in cellular senescence and advance the first preclinical programs into human trials. Those trials are expected to begin sometime within the next 12 to 18 months.
In addition to big names like Bezos and the Mayo Clinic, funding for Unity was also backed by other well-known biotech investors, including Baillie Gifford, Fidelity Management and Research Company, WuXi PharmaTech, Partner Fund Management and Venrock.
The infusion of $116 million came on the heels of research the company published that demonstrates the central role of senescent cells in disease. The paper, written by Unity co-founders Judith Campisi and Jan van Deursen was published in the journal “Science.” The research describes the central role of senescent cells in atherosclerotic disease and demonstrates that the selective elimination of senescent cells holds the promise of treating atherosclerosis in humans, the company said. Unity said the research shows that “selective elimination of senescent cells inhibits the growth of atherosclerotic plaque, reduces inflammation, and alters the structural characteristics of plaque such that higher-risk ‘unstable’ lesions take on the structural features of lower-risk ‘stable’ lesions.”
Jamie Dananberg, Unity’s chief medical officer, said the published research supports the “role of cellular senescence in aging and demonstrates that the selective elimination of senescent cells is a promising therapeutic paradigm to treat diseases of aging and extend healthspan.”
"We believe that we have line of sight to slow, halt, or even reverse numerous diseases of aging, and we look forward to starting clinical trials with our first drug candidates in the near future,” Dananberg said in a statement.
Unity’s science, if it can be transferred to humans, will be a direct challenge to Calico Life Sciences, which announced a partnership with Provo, Utah-based AncestryDNA to analyze and investigate genetics and longevity using Ancestry’s proprietary databases, tools and algorithms. Recently Calico, a Google science division specifically targeted at aging, has partnered with Illinois-based AbbVie to reverse engineer the biological aging process in people. The $500 million partnership is slated for a 10-year period to advance its experimental drugs through Phase IIa studies and small mid-stage trials that will establish a likelihood the drugs may work in larger studies.
In addition to the financing, the company underwent a little bit of a leadership reorganization. Founder Nathaniel David had been serving as chief executive officer, but he will shift over into the role of company president. Keith Leonard, the former CEO of Kythera Biopharmaceuticals , which was acquired by Allergan last year, has been named the new CEO of Unity.